Vietnam Memorial Turns 25

Posted November 7, 2007 at 6:27pm

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial sparked immediate controversy when its design was first unveiled in 1981. Some veterans derided it as “a black gash of shame” or “a black pit.” In fact, the flagpoles and statues of soldiers accompanying the memorial’s best-known feature — the granite wall listing names of those who died in the conflict or were missing in action — were included to mollify fears about the starkness of the design.

Despite the original controversy, the memorial now attracts 3 million to 4 million visitors a year, including many friends, family members and veterans returning to honor the soldiers who lost their lives in the Southeast Asian conflict. And this week, thousands of Vietnam War veterans will gather to commemorate the memorial’s 25th anniversary.

Leading up to the main commemoration ceremony on Sunday, nearly 2,000 volunteers, including Members of Congress, will read all 58,000 names inscribed on the memorial’s black wall. The reading will stretch over four days and will mark only the fourth time in the memorial’s history that all the names have been read in Washington.

“The Reading of the Names is a remembrance of the individuals who served and sacrificed,” Jan C. Scruggs, the founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, said in a statement. “It’s 58,256 loved ones, relatives and friends who couldn’t be here with us today.” Scruggs led the original campaign to construct the memorial after researching post-traumatic stress disorder and its effects on veterans. His memorial fund is sponsoring the 25th anniversary commemoration. [IMGCAP(1)]

Since its inception, the memorial has become famous for items left at the wall. On Friday an Interior Department exhibit of “left behind” items will open to the public. Some, such as letters and flags, are fairly common. Others are not. Among the pieces on display is a motorcycle constructed by veterans from Wisconsin using components of different Harley-Davidsons. The motorcycle was left at the wall with written instructions that it should not be started until the fates of 37 troops missing in action and prisoners of war from the state are known.

“We’re not sure exactly who left it. A ranger just showed up one morning and it was there,” said Bill Line, a spokesman for the National Park Service, which oversees the memorial.

“We get many, many dog tags” left at the wall, Line added. Combat boots, pencil rubbings of the names, handwritten notes, Army helmets and berets — donated by Green Beret veterans — also are common. Less common, he said, are military service medals such as the Purple Heart or the Medal of Valor. Items left at the wall are archived and stored at a facility in suburban Maryland, Line said, adding that the number reached 100,000 in December 2006.

Line said he was not familiar with two other items left at the wall and displayed at the Interior Department exhibit: a high-heeled shoe and a black pair of women’s underwear.

“I’m not remembering those two particular items, but it doesn’t surprise me that they were left there,” Line said. “A lot of people leave items with nothing written — no explanation.”

He said the items at the Interior exhibit were a “small snapshot” of what is stored at the Maryland facility.

Anniversary-related events will last through Sunday, and will include such speakers as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. A downtown parade and other activities are scheduled for Saturday, and commemorative ceremonies will be held Sunday at the wall. The Interior Department exhibit will last through May 31, and will be open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and the third Saturday of each month from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission to the exhibit, at the main Interior building at 1849 C St. NW, is free. Visitors must bring photo identification.